Bill Keaggy on 50 Sad Chairs

50 Sad Chairs
50 Sad Chairs

Before I start this interview, I have to apologize to author Bill Keaggy. This interview was completed in early 2008–and I promptly misplaced the interview. Don’t ask me how. But I still think, while it’s late, it’s still a great interview (thanks to Keaggy’s answers) and an interesting book. So here’s the interview. But first some background (from the publisher, BlueQ) before getting to the questions: “Bill Keaggy witnesses and documents tired and tossed chairs in downtown St. Louis. Each image is a mixed bag of forlorn and funny, a veritable commentary on our culture of consumption (at least as it relates to chairs). 104 pages.” The book’s a real bargain at $5.99 and is available from the publisher or Amazon.

Tim O’Shea: How did you come up with the idea for the book? Did this project predate the grocery list book?

Bill Keaggy: The sad chairs project predated the grocery list book but the grocery list project predated both the sad chairs project and book :-) …the project started in — as they all do — a moment of silly serendipity. This is what happened: 1) I saw a broken, beat down chair. 2) I pulled out my trusty pocket digital camera. 3) I took a picture, thinking, “Wow, what a sad chair.” 4) I liked the ring of the phrase “sad chair,” but I knew that I tend to get carried away with my projects so I decided to put parameters on this one. I’d only take 50 pictures of 50 sad chairs. About 500 chairs later (I posted the first 50 to my site) the weird and wonderful folks at BlueQ asked me if I wanted to turn the project into a book. I said yes.

O’Shea: Which chair was the first one you photographed?

Keaggy: Chair #1 on my site, #25 in the book. Honestly, it’s one of the worst photos, quality-wise, but I had to include it. I actually shot it from the car window on the way back from a trip to the recycling dumpsters.

O’Shea: Did you ever have to get permission to run the photos, or are they all discards on the street for the most part?

Keaggy: No. I shoot the photos from public property and almost all of them are discards left out on the street… or alley. Actually, 99% of the photographs were shot on bike rides around the city of St Louis. I like back alleys.

O’Shea: Did you ever have anyone come out and discover you taking a photograph of their “sad” chair?

Keaggy: I definitely avoid people when working on projects like this but I do meet quite a few angry dogs. They are preferable to angry humans.

O’Shea: Why call them sad chairs, as opposed to abandoned or unloved chairs or some other label?

Keaggy: It’s what struck me when I saw the first one. “Abandoned” is descriptive. “Sad” is anthropomorphic. It’s about imagining stories and lives behind the chairs rather than just just describing their current state. So… that’s why it’s the “sad chairs” project. But it’s funny how one simple, descriptive word or phrase can frame a photograph. There’s the bright yellow child’s chair set out by the dumpster. That one’s named “Orphan.” Then there’s “Cannibals.” That’s the photo of some couch cushions in an alley seemingly attacking another cushion. Or the empty chair next to the payphone, titled, “She never calls anymore.” I let those labels handle the descriptive part. And there are some funny ones too! They’re not all flat-out sad — there is some twisted humor at work as well.

O’Shea: Did you ever have to fight the urge to want to bring the chair home to repair it?

Keaggy: Not since college.

O’Shea: Are you aware of the book, The Red Couch?

Keaggy: Yes, but I don’t own a copy. I think I better add it to the collection.